I had the opportunity to attend Encore Theatre/Amil Tellers’ production of a Don Nigro play, “Ravenscroft.” Let me say, first, my initial perceptions of this work were so incorrect as to be laughable. I won’t say what these misconceptions were, but I was not ready for Mr. Nigro’s sense of humor or suspense. And that is not all bad.
The story, that of a early 1900’s Victorian wealthy family, being investigated for the possible murder of their footman/handyman, Patrick, is somewhat implausible. But then, again, most “Who Dunnit’s” are. The wealthy widow, played by Amber Evans, her daughter, (Abigail Stallkamp), their governess, (Jennifer Napier), the housekeeper, (Sarah Bennett), and the cook (Sydney Rovner) are being held virtual prisoners (or at least terribly inconvenienced) by police inspector John Ruffing, who is determined to get to the bottom of the “accidental” death of the male servant. Ruffing, portrayed perfectly by Nick Hyber, is determined to catch a murderer, but is detoured, thwarted and deceived at every stop, by this group of women with plenty to hide.
This is the early premise of the play. But whilst I was waiting for major events to unfold, from 10 minutes on, I was wishing I could get up and sneak out. The opening to this play is dry. Perhaps dry as “the dead queen’s left buttock.” I talking beef-jerky dry. The dialogue is not terribly conducive to pace, however well acted, and Hyber, Evans, and Napier were very good. I just could not get interested in the action (This is an extremely static piece, until the end.) and I wished someone would at least scream, or that, somehow, I could wake up in the middle of Act II.
But I stayed in my seat, finally being rewarded for doing so, by the development of a thought-provoking and riveting set of developments. As Nigro intends, the audience is thrown from one suspect to the other. Their lies, inventions, and subterfuge have the inspector, Ruffing, struggling to remain staid; aloof. The blame for the murder jumps from one to the next so rapidly, that Ruffing and those in attendance are dizzied.
I won’t speak to the end of the play, to prevent any spoilers, but Nigro, and our cast wrap up the mystery in a surprising, (and almost too neat) package. His over-arching goal of making all, yet none of the women guilty, works. I suspect, like me, each viewer has his or her favorite to be unmasked. In the end, most are surprised. I mentioned to one cast member, I felt the playwright could not really decide whether this was a drama or a comedy. The second act descends into some very funny sequences, but tries to recapture the suspense at the finish. The cast member indicated that the cast did not fully realize the depth of the humor until the production was in front of an audience. They rehearsed the show as strict drama. This was exactly as it should have been. I give credit for this to director, Julie Kerr. The humor is definitely not the kind that pops from behind the curtain, shouting, “Hey, look at me! I’m funny, too!” The cast did not over-indulge themselves with the humor, and, for their patience, they were rewarded with good laughs from the audience.
It was a great pleasure for me to see three young ladies, Napier, Bennett, and Evans, actresses I had directed recently, stretch themselves even further. Evans, a stalwart of the Van Wert Civic Theatre is a real pro. It is always a joy to watch her act, be it comedy or drama. She killed both sides of the conniving, yet slinky Lady Ravenscroft with aplomb. Napier gave a great go-round as the strong, snarky, and cerebral Marcy. And Bennett, as the overbearing housekeeper, was quite on with her accent, and gave us a turn with the force of her temper. She was a great Mrs. French.
The two younger women, Stallkamp, and Rovner, I had little knowledge of, or expectations for. Stallkamp, as Jillian, with a gritty, Bette Davis delivery, gave us an incredibly annoying and flirtatious teenager. Her training, in productions at the Youth Theatre at Encore has obviously served her well. I wanted to send her to her room, from her opening and onward. Rovner was given the saddle of a much-smaller role and struggled through most of it, sometimes appearing as if she did not really want to be on stage. But in appearing so, she was able to adequately give us the idea of a bumbling and put-upon servant. She was low man, er… girl on the totem pole and it showed. For her struggles, and inexperience she managed nicely.
I want to talk about accents. When doing any British piece, the temptation is to play the show straight, with none. Accents, at this level are a minefield, into which no sane director wishes to meander. I believe this is the reason most community theatres choose not to do this kind of thing. Usually, depending on the relative experience of the actors, accents fluctuate wildly, detracting from the story. In this case, director Kerr is no sane director. She has ploughed ahead, insisting on accurate vocal portrayals. And in the vast majority, she has succeeded. I noticed wanderings, mostly slight, from everyone. I watch for this because, I myself, am notorious for bad accents. For the most part, however, everyone was close enough for their audience.
I need to go back to Hyber, a very young man, who had the unenviable task of moving the action forward for 80% of the show. This he did, showing no hesitation for lines, as far as I could tell. He walked an ever-declining path, from calm, cool, and perceptive, to his eventual fragile, inebriate, and grandiose. This was a performance that made the show, held it together, and made the whole thing clearer. It was a pleasure to watch this terrific turn in Nigro’s play blossom, and Hyber was, every inch, up to it.
In addition to my observations regarding the actors, I noted an interesting style decision. I am not entirely sure why no attempt was made to build a traditional set. I am guessing this is so the backstage actors can be viewed as they react to each other. I’m not sure if this is Don Nigro’s intent, the director’s, or that of set designer “Team Ravenscroft”. For whatever reason, at least for me, the placement of the furniture and the set dressing were enough. I discovered the arrangement surprisingly pleasing, and an enhancement to my enjoyment. On the whole, I found this nice evening of entertainment. You will, too. There remains an entire weekend of performances of this show. Please, do yourself a favor, and get over to Encore to see it.